The word alone has been polarized and politicized. The topic of opinionated op-eds, harsh debates, heartfelt testimonies, and cautious conversations.
But now, a few residents and organizations in northeast Indiana are starting to ask: Do we even know who we are talking about when we use that word here?
Who are the immigrants in northeast Indiana’s community, and how do they affect our region? More pointedly: How can this knowledge influence our future?
That’s the purpose of a recent study conducted by the New American Economy with support from Welcoming Fort Wayne, Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. It presents an opportunity for residents to put aside experiences and opinions for a moment to examine the facts about the region’s immigrant population.
The study (available here) was initially proposed by Fort Wayne resident and Perry Township Trustee candidate Melissa Rinehart, creator and lead organizer of the volunteer ministry Welcoming Fort Wayne.
While Rinehart is not a first-generation immigrant herself, she’s interested in the cause because she feels a kinship with the immigrant community and its ongoing role in Fort Wayne’s story.
“We’ve always been a city of immigrants,” Rinehart says. “I think that gets forgotten, and when it’s forgotten people become disconnected not just with their heritage, but with the community.”
So, since 2015, Welcoming Fort Wayne has promoted immigrant integration into the greater Fort Wayne area by raising awareness about causes, providing immigrants with resources, and empowering residents to be “welcomers” in their own capacities.
Welcoming Fort Wayne is funded by Associated Churches and based off the national organization Welcoming America, Rinehart notes.
“We form partnerships to bring resources together that show where support for immigrants is strong, but also areas we could improve upon,” she says.
That’s why the ministry was interested in a study by the New American Economy in the first place. It wanted to advance its projects by determining what needs and opportunities exist for immigrants here.
“This kind of research has not been done in Indiana anywhere,” Rinehart says. “It’s going to be useful across the professional spectrum for governments and nonprofits that want to serve immigrants more effectively.”
For the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, there’s an economic incentive in getting to know immigrants better, too.
As Director of the Road to One Million at the Regional Partnership, Michael Galbraith has one main goal: Help the 11 counties of northeast Indiana reach one million residents by the year 2030.
There are three main ways this can be accomplished, he says.
Cities can strive to have populations where the birth rate exceeds the death rate. They can make sure the economy and quality of life are good enough to attract and retain domestic talent. And they can be welcoming enough to allow people from other countries to feel at home here.
While Galbraith knows none of these approaches are going to be the “magic bullet answer,” he has found that the third point is critical to achieving his goal.
The Chicago Tribune reports that immigrants are often a lifeline for cities like Fort Wayne across the Midwest, “bucking the pattern of population loss and revitalizing an aging workforce.”
The New American Economy study found that roughly one-quarter of northeast Indiana’s total population growth comes from immigrants alone.
“If we want to keep growing, we need to make sure we welcome immigrants into our community,” Galbraith says.
That’s where the statistics come in handy for the Regional Partnership. They shed light on an area of population growth that was once a matter of politics, personal experience, and speculation.
Now, it’s a matter of economics, Galbraith says.
“We need to grow, and one way to do that is by having a robust, welcoming community for immigrants and making sure their economic contributions are valued by us as a community,” he explains. “We’re trying to increase business investment in northeast Indiana. Not only are immigrants valued members of our society, contributing more than they take away, but they’re really a crucial part of our workforce.”
Numbers from the New American Economy study support his claims.
The study found that 7.5 percent of all workers in the regional manufacturing industry are immigrants or refugees. In addition to that, 7.1 percent of regional construction workers are immigrants or refugees, too.
Without these employees, Galbraith says other regional initiatives, like downtown development and the creation of regional housing would be more challenging—not to mention staffing the growing number of regional businesses where immigrants fill critical roles.
Around the region, immigrants are starting their own businesses, too.
The New American Economy Study found that while they represent only 4.5 percent of the regional population, they make up 4.7 percent of its entrepreneurs.
Without immigrants, many of the city’s festivals like Greekfest and Germanfest would not exist. Regional tourism would take a hit without cultural events like Shruti concerts, which bring thousands of visitors to Fort Wayne every year. Not to mention, there wouldn’t be an ever-expanding variety of cuisines at local restaurants and grocery stores started by immigrant families.
“Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t have found a Jamaican restaurant in Waynedale,” Galbraith says.
But while the food industry is often the place where the public sees people of different cultures, it’s not the only place they’re making a difference, he notes.
“One thing we’re hoping to do is showcase the diversity of the immigrants who are coming here,” Galbraith says. “People think they know about some typical occupations immigrants have, but there’s such a diverse range of occupations.”
Across northeast Indiana, immigrants work everything from low wage jobs to high profile positions with the region’s largest companies.
Recently, a Fort Wayne-based immigrant from India, Tirthak Saha, was named one of Forbe’s 30 under 30 for his groundbreaking energy innovations at I&M.
“If you try to say this is what a typical immigrant looks like and does, you’d have a hard time,” Galbraith says. “There’s a wide spectrum of jobs people perform in our economy.”
Now growing regional companies, like Maple Leaf Farms, are taking initiative to include immigrants in their workforce.
Maple Leaf Farms is a fourth-generation family-owned duck producer headquartered in Leesburg, Ind.
The first year it opened in 1958, it produced 280,000 White Pekin ducks. Now it’s producing 10-15 million ducks annually with 1,000 employees and more than 150 partner farmers across the country.
The company manages a fully-integrated operation that includes every step of the process from breeding farms and hatcheries, to biotech and analytical labs, feather operations, feed mills, and processing plants.
“We do everything from the grain all the way down to tablecloth and everything in between,” says Diana Scheele.
As Vice President of Human Resources for the company, Scheele works with 10 other employees who oversee hiring and benefits, so all locations are staffed and can run their daily processes. Part of her job in northeast Indiana is taking care of the company’s growing population of immigrant employees here.
She says Maple Leaf enjoys working with immigrants because they tend to have good availability and a high level of enthusiasm for their work.
“They’re willing to work hard every day,” she says. “Their work ethics and values are very good.”
Maple Leaf hires immigrants to fill a number of positions. There are currently three bilingual Burmese employees and three bilingual Spanish-speaking employees in its HR department alone. But many immigrants tend to congregate in the processing and cook plants where they can work with others who speak the same language, she says.
That’s what led to another part of her job.
For the last several years, Scheele has been working with area translators to create readable documents for Maple Leaf's immigrant employees, primarily those who speak Spanish and Burmese languages.
“We’re trying to translate as many documents as we can, so we can communicate better,” she says.
Working with local translators and key members of the Burmese community, in particular, has helped spread the word about job opportunities, too.
Maple Leaf employs a large population of Burmese refugees who have poured into northeast Indiana since 1991 when they began fleeing the oppression of their authoritarian government.
Fort Wayne, as a whole, is home to one of the largest Burmese communities in the U.S. But cultural and language barriers still keep many of these refugees isolated after they arrive. Finding new ways to mobilize them and help them earn steady incomes ultimately improves the economy for everyone, Scheele says.
“We have people who need jobs, and we have jobs who need people,” she explains. “To be successful as a state, we need our immigrant population to be a successful, contributing part of society. So we need to provide ways and means for them to do that.”
When it comes down to it, the reason companies hire immigrants is often the same reason communities benefit from welcoming them.
“We need them, and they need us,” she says.
This Special Report was made possible by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.